The speeding-car stunt is just one of the feats that sent me in pursuit of America’s comedic trailblazer.
By Taylor McNeil
Buster Keaton, the stone-faced silent-film comedian in the porkpie hat, pulled off some amazing stunts in his time. But there’s one scene that always takes my breath away. It occurs in his classic short film Cops, from 1922. Chased by a posse of police, Buster comes running down a narrow alleyway and out onto a wide city street. He turns around to size up the pursuing cops for maybe a second before a saloon car speeds across the screen. Buster grabs the rear of the vehicle, and the force yanks his body up almost sideways, parallel with the pavement, as he’s whisked off.
In eight brief seconds, the scene captures many of the things that make Buster Keaton unique: his athleticism, his plucky underdog persona, his fearlessness, and his sheer inventiveness in coming up with gags one after another. He was, to my mind, the brightest of the silent film comedians, but not just that: he created films that are as funny today as they were a century ago. So when I had a chance to finally go to Los Angeles a few years ago, it turned into something of a pilgrimage to search out the locations where Buster shot some of my favorite scenes.
To appreciate Buster Keaton (1895–1966), you have to imagine a time before modern film technology: no CGI, no special effects, no color, no booming surround sound — or any sound at all, except for live musical accompaniment, usually a piano. The only dialogue came in brief title cards between scenes.
If you wanted to keep the audience entertained, the storytelling had to be almost entirely visual. In comedies, that meant sight gags. And no one was better at creating them than Buster Keaton. In films like Cops — two-reelers, or twenty-minute shorts — one funny bit followed another in quick succession. Buster stands behind a man in a queue that never moves — finally realizing it’s a mannequin; talks earnestly to a girl through bars before a different angle reveals not a prison but a gate; writes from New York that he is cleaning up the city, at which point we see him street sweeping.
Buster never used a stunt man, no matter how dangerous the scene. When he sits at the edge of a wooden board extending off the top of a house, and saws it until it breaks, that’s really him falling to the ground. In more than one feature he walks away from a house, and suddenly the entire façade falls on him — missing him, as he stands in a window opening. One misstep and he would have been a goner. In another gag, he’s hiding in a streamship paddle wheel, which soon becomes a hamster wheel, as he races to keep upright. Tellingly, such routines became mainstays of Warner Brothers cartoons decades later.
Building contraptions — Buster might have been an engineer in another life — was another source of gags. The Murphy bed that folds into the wall and becomes a piano. The phonograph that converts into a stove. The train set that takes dishes to the kitchen. He had about half the gags worked out ahead of time, he said. The rest he and his crew improvised as they were shooting — but you’d never know it.
Buster first burst into the movies in 1917 in Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s two-reeler The Butcher Boy, taking death-defying falls that he had learned performing in his family’s vaudeville act starting when he was four. He went on to produce almost twenty comedy shorts before he started making feature films, many while still in his twenties. Those movies took his storytelling and comedic skills to even greater heights, capped by The General, which often makes the top-movies-of-all-time lists.
But they weren’t enough to save him, as personal troubles (a bad marriage, a drinking problem) coincided with a bad contract he signed with MGM, which took away all his creative control as a director. From there it was downhill — until he was rediscovered in the fifties, and became a regular on TV shows and a cameo actor in movies, such as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
In Buster’s LA
I’ve been a fan since the late 1980s, when I attended a Buster Keaton retrospective at the Brattle Theatre, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I went on to join the International Buster Keaton Society, collect his movies (first on VHS tapes and then DVDs), and listen to every episode of the Talking Buster Keaton podcast.
When my daughter suggested a long-weekend trip to Los Angeles in February 2018, I didn’t hesitate. Not only could we both use a break from the dreary Northeastern winter, but I was dying to see the locations where Buster filmed. It was a fanboy thing to do: be where your favorite star had been.
Someone had already done the detective work. John Bengston published Silent Echoes: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Buster Keaton back in 1999. He had combed through Buster’s films, archival photos of Los Angeles, old phone directories, and newspapers to pinpoint as many shooting locales as possible.
Once settled into our Airbnb in Angelino Heights, I followed one of Bengston’s leads to the corner of LaSalle and Adams. It’s the site of the church from Seven Chances, a feature that Buster made in 1925.
The film’s premise is silly: Jimmy Shannon, played by Buster, finds out on his thirtieth birthday that to inherit millions, he has to get married before seven o’clock that evening. It’s noon, and he strikes out with every winsome female in view. So his pal takes out a newspaper ad for a bride to share Jimmy’s fortune. Hundreds of eager applicants show up at the church in their wedding gowns. Thinking they’re victims of a practical joke, they proceed to chase Buster down La Salle Avenue and beyond.
The chase scene is a classic, involving cranes, runaway boulders, and some breathtaking leaps (Buster was always in top athletic condition). And it all began at the red-brick church that now loomed before me. The structure had a new name — the Greater Page Temple Church of God in Christ — but was otherwise unchanged. I marveled that I was standing exactly where Buster stood almost a century before.
Another afternoon I drove to the corner of Eleanor Avenue and Lillian Way, the former site of Buster’s studio lot. Buster had bought the property from Charlie Chaplain and made films there from 1920 to 1928, while he still had his production company. Now it’s just a low, industrial-looking building, but on the corner wall is a black and white painting of Buster wearing his trademark hat, his name in red.
Embedded in the sidewalk are two recent plaques. One commemorates the studio’s presence on the site. The other one — which Buster probably would have gotten a bigger kick out of — notes that in 1988 fans placed a commemorative plaque on the wrong side of the street.
From there it was a short drive to Cahuenga Boulevard, just south of Sunset, for more film locations. The first thing I noticed was a small public parking lot — maybe five cars could fit in it — and it hit me: this was the very same lot where Buster parked his cow Brown Eyes, dutifully getting a receipt from the attendant, while he herded stampeding cattle through downtown LA in the 1925 movie Go West. The film has an existentialist feel to it — a lone man against the world — but it’s one of my favorites. The little parking lot comes back at the end when Buster returns to claim Brown Eyes.
But that wasn’t the location I was looking for. I had come to Cahuenga in hopes of finding the alleyway from that memorable police chase in Cops. I walked up and down the boulevard in search of an opening wide enough to accommodate a crowd of sprinting police. It seemed to have disappeared. A shadowy passageway separated a newsstand from a bar, but I was certain it was too narrow to fit the bill. Until I looked closer. At the far end of the passageway stood an old office building decorated with distinctive medallions. It had been under construction when Cops was filmed, but it was definitely the same building. I had found my alley.
I stood there, transfixed: this was the exact spot on which, almost a hundred years earlier, Buster Keaton and his crew had made eight seconds of movie magic. I could imagine them shooting the scene — blocking off traffic on this busy thoroughfare. The camera would be set up across the street, where my daughter, Emily, stood taking a photo of me. Buster’s co-director, Eddie Cline, would have shouted the orders for the saloon car to begin accelerating up to speed. Then out would have come Buster, with the comic cops in close pursuit. He would have paused in the southbound lane of Cahuenga and glanced at the approaching vehicle, waiting for the right millisecond at which to grab hold of a bar on the back. A normal person would have had his arm yanked out of his shoulder socket, but not Buster, who simply flew away with the car. ☾
TAYLOR McNEIL is an editor and writer at Tufts University. After earning a B.A. from George Washington University, he worked as a paralegal, a researcher for a public policy consulting firm, and a program evaluator for the federal government — earning an M.Sc. from the London School of Economics and Political Science along the way. He later turned to writing, working at newspapers and then Boston University, where he was editor of its alumni magazine, before beginning to work at Tufts in 2007.
Wonderful memory of such a classic silent film star. Thank you for allowing us to relive that special 8 seconds of athleticism in such a personal way.
Really enjoyed this, and now I am convinced–I gotta check out some of these Buster Keaton movies! Looking forward to it!